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Robert Haaland
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas

Holding a law degree while asking for spare change

By Robert Haaland

July 19, 2006

Twelve years ago, while I was in law school, I came out as transgender. But I was terrified, even after living life as an open lesbian for twelve years. I was terrified because I knew it would be impossible for me to get a job. I was in law school and I didn't know any transgender attorneys, except Shannon Minter who transitioned on the job at the National Center for Lesbian Rights, not exactly a place that would kick him to the curb for being trans.

Because I was apprehensive about coming out, I mentioned it to my boss, a lesbian attorney I had worked for during undergraduate and law school. She was not pleased and I got really nervous when I realized that the gay and lesbian community wasn't necessarily going to understand or have my back. Regardless, I came out anyway the summer after I graduated from law school and my fears were immediately realized. I remember sitting in an interview with a local prominent progressive activist and explaining that I was trans. She didn't look completely horrified, just confused and uncomfortable. I didn't get the job.
I didn't get a lot of jobs I applied for.

I struggled for many years after law school. Being trans wasn't cool yet in progressive circles (not that it is peaches and cream all the time now). I was really fortunate. I was paying extremely low rent and had a roommate who was incredibly empathetic. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that had I not been living with him, I would have ended up in a SRO.

My story is not uncommon though.

Folks in the trans community are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. What is underemployed? Well, when a transgender woman who used to be CEO of a major corporation ends up driving a cab, she is underemployed.

I was lucky. I could have ended up unemployed, homeless and who knows? I was scared, confused, had no family to back me up, but was lucky enough to have a roommate who took care of me while I was on the edge of/living in poverty. My story is probably one of thousands: Try sitting in an interview and deciding whether to come out or not. If what is happening at the Board of Supervisors had happened 12 years ago, it would have made a difference in my life, could have helped me navigate getting a job and kept me from ending up on the streets with a law degree while asking for spare change ( I felt like I was that close).

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budget Committee proposed and passed an historic $300,000 commitment to turning around the high rates of poverty in San Francisco's transgender communities. Thirteen years after San Francisco outlawed discrimination against transgender employees, the Committee earmarked funds to improve employment opportunities to overcome high rates of unemployment and underemployment among well qualified transgender people in the city who would otherwise be frozen out of the job market.

Receiving unanimous support from the Budget Committee, the initiative is an important first step and timely. Joining Supervisor Dufty in voting for funding the Initiative was Committee Chair Chris Daly, Board President Aaron Peskin, and Supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Sean Elsbernd.

Community members are thrilled about the vote and the support of elected officials. This historic vote reinforces the city's role as a national leader in the transgender equality movement. Just five years after the city began offering health insurance equality for city employees, this initiative will set another milestone in transgender history by creating full and fair employment and entrepreneurship opportunities for our community.

Funding for the Initiative will be managed by the City's Human Services Agency (HSA) which oversees workforce development. San Francisco's Airport and the Public Utilities Commission collaboratively contributed $100,000 to the Initiative so that some of the employment training programs will be specifically geared to meet their employment and hiring needs. The remaining commitment comes from the city's General Fund.

Robert Haaland is a member of the San Francisco Board of Appeals and publishes leftinsf.com.

Email Robert Haaland at robert_haaland@hotmail.com.




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